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Darkness Falls
Pieces of Austria
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2020

My minor field advisor warned me about it in graduate school. If I wanted to succeed as a professional historian, warned Kristin Mann, I needed to get over “indulging (my) quirky interests and concentrate on serious research.” Thanks in large part to Kristin's guidance I did get my doctorate, but since I went on from there to run a game company instead of holding a tenured faculty chair (well-salaried, with full benefits package) she was undoubtedly right. I still can’t get over indulging those quirky interests.

Darkness Falls comes with 330 beautifully die-cut and mounted playing pieces, thicker than our usual pieces with a very nice semi-gloss finish. Most of them represent the Austrian Federal Army, or Bundesheer, of 1938. And since I’ve always greatly disliked the practice of “pretend these pieces are really this other type” found in some tactical-scale wargames, there are separate sets of pieces for SA Brownshirts, Austrian nationalist Heimwehr militia and Austrian socialist Schutzbund militia.

So enough of the ramblings, what about the toys? There are plenty of toys, enough to convince Kristin that I haven’t grown up at all. Here's a look at some of them:

Infantry

The Republic inherited huge numbers of M95 Mannlicher straight-pull bolt-action rifles from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as the means to refurbish and repair them. Austria had no problem providing small arms for its fighting men; rather, the authorities scrambled to keep track of all these weapons and keep them out of the hands of the political militias. Hundreds of thousands of rifles were sold to other nations, and the armories still held at least as many more.

   

But only about half of Austria’s infantrymen carried these sturdy weapons. Knowing they would be badly outnumbered in any clash with the Germans, the Austrian army tried to compensate as best they could by issuing large numbers of MP34 submachine guns. A well-made (and expensive) weapon, unlike many of its type it fired a rifle round (rather than a pistol round) from an easily-replaced 32-round box magazine.

Along with the mountains of Mannlichers, the Bundesheer also took custody of hundreds of Schwarzlose M07/12 machine guns. A water-cooled, belt-fed weapon, the Schwarzlose was a reliable weapon with a good rate of fire despite its age. An Austrian machine gun platoon had four of them, and they also equipped each division's anti-aircraft company. While still very capable as an infantry-support weapon, the Schwarzlose had already been proven ineffective as an anti-aircraft gun during the Great War.

Each of Austria’s eight divisional districts also raised one reserve brigade. The militia did not receive submachine guns, only Mannlicher rifles, but appears to have had full allotments of machine guns. Many of the troops were former members of the Heimwehr or Schutzbund, sometimes enrolled in the same platoons.

Armor

Like other small European nations, Austria combined its mechanized, motorized and horsed regiments into a single “fast” division. In practice this turned out to be an unworkable solution, as the Austrians would have discovered had they fought the Germans. The Bundesheer hoped to split off the two cavalry regiments from the Fast Division and transform it into a true armored/mechanized force, but the republic simply did not have the money available for the vehicles.

     

What armor Austria did possess was concentrated in the Panzer Battalion: 72 Italian-made CV33 tankettes, known as the Kampfwagen33 in Austrian usage. The Austrians knew these to be unsuitable for modern warfare due to their lightweight armor and armament but Fiat-Ansaldo, the manufacturer, offered very easy credit terms as part of Italy's export-boosting foreign policy.

The Austrians obtained a sample of the Czech-made LT35 tank and liked it very much; the army recommended its purchase and designated it the KW35 in anticipation of its arrival. But while Skoda, the manufacturer, had a solid relationship with the Bundesheer it did not enjoy the huge government subsidies of the Ansaldo combine. If the Austrians wanted the tank, they’d have to pay for it, and this posed a problem.

While the army tried to obtain funding, it also studied the follow-on vehicle, the LT38, and also issued a favorable report. But the Austrians liked their Böhler 47mm anti-tank gun and asked Skoda to prepare a design featuring this weapon instead of the standard 37mm gun. The firm did produce a prototype, the V-8-H, but whether the Austrian request or a similar query from the Czech Army came first is unclear. In any event, neither army received the new tank but it would be produced by the Hungarians as the Turan.

The final tank appearing in Austrian colors is another Skoda design, the T25 “Skoda Panther.” This tank was designed in response to a German Army request but despite the ownership stake grabbed by Hermann Goering, Skoda was never really in the running for the massively profitable Panther contract and the better-connected Daimler-Benz entry won the big prize. The T25 had a unique auto-loading 75mm cannon as well as an innovative vertically-mounted engine and good armor protection on a hull with sloped armor protection copied from the Soviet T34.

Heavy Weapons

In the late 20th century, Austria’s largest state-owned industry became Voest-Alpine, a specialty steel and engineering firm that also supplied cutting-edge artillery systems to international pariahs like Argentina, Iraq, Iran and South Africa; the GHN45 155mm gun-howitzer was credited with saving Basra from the Iranians in 1985. But the First Republic had no such capability, and the Federal Army’s artillery relied almost exclusively on reconditioned weapons left over from the First World War.

   

The 76.5mm gun is the famous “Austrian 88” of the Great War. In Austrian parlance this was the 8cm Feldkanone M17, and gained a good reputation on the Italian front. British troops took the alliterative phrase “Austrian 88” to the trenches of France, where American Doughboys picked it up and applied it to German light artillery as well. And for its time, the M17 was an accurate weapon, with a good rate of fire and reasonably easy to transport.

By 1938, the M17 no longer stood in the front rank of modern artillery, but the Bundesheer could not afford to replace it. So while the German “light” artillery batteries would have gone into battle with the very effective modern 105mm howitzer, the Austrians retained the 76.5mm, though it had been modernized with new sights and wheels.

The Austrian “medium” piece was another Great War veteran, the 10cm Feld-Haubitze M.14. Many other nations also used this Skoda-made piece during World War II, including Poland, Italy and Hungary. An excellent weapon when introduced, like the 76.5mm cannon it was no longer on the cutting edge of technology but could be broken into three loads for ease of transport.

Austria manufactured its own variant of the ubiquitous Brandt 81mm mortar. The Austrian M33 was slightly shorter and heavier than the very similar German model, launching a slightly smaller round to a slightly lesser range. The Bundesheer had 230 of them on hand in March 1938.

While Austria did not manufacture heavy artillery, the Böhler firm produced an excellent 47mm “nfantry gun” that also filled the Federal Army's anti-tank needs. First purchased in 1935, the gun equipped one battalion of five of the army’s seven infantry divisions plus one with the independent 8th Brigade; further production was under way to add three more battalions to equip all the infantry divisions and the Fast Division. The gun had range and penetration ability far beyond any other anti-tank weapon then in service, and the Austrians also deployed an effective high-explosive round. The Böhler weapons would also be sold to Romania, Lithuania and the Netherlands, and manufactured under license in Italy to become the standard Italian anti-tank gun

Reserve brigades and probably the two front-line divisions without an infantry gun battalion all had the older 20mm anti-tank gun, an Austrian-made copy of a Swiss gun designed by Soluthurn. Mounted on a wheeled carriage, the weapon could theoretically be removed and fired like a vastly oversized rifle; the famous Finnish Lahti “elephant gun” was a descendant. While vastly outclassed by the 47mm gun, the older 20mm weapon would still have been effective against the PanzerKampfwagen I tankettes that made up the bulk of Germany’s panzer force.

Though well-equipped with anti-tank guns, the Bundesheer almost completely lacked anti-aircraft protection. The army high command had one battery of heavy guns at its disposal; otherwise, anti-aircraft protection consisted of Schwarzlose machine guns on high-angle mounts. Each division had one company of these.

Mountain Warfare

Austrian mountain troops compiled an outstanding war record between 1914 and 1918. Both the Imperial and Royal Army’s Kaiserjäger and the Austrian Landwehr’s Kaiserschützen fought to defend the empire’s Alpine frontier, and the Federal Army maintained both traditions. Three regiments and four battalions carried the “Alpenjäger” designation, and several infantry regiments underwent mountain training as well.

 

Mountain troops carried the same weapons as the infantry, and differed mostly in their artillery. The 75mm and 100mm mountain guns were Skoda-made variations on the standard field pieces, but the 75mm piece in particular was a very well-designed weapon with much better performance than the older field gun.

The Militia Movement

For many years, one of the key questions in Austrian politics has been whether Vienna will be “red” or “black.” In modern times, the conflict is more often seen in colors of green and violet, when Rapid-Wien and SK Austria meet. But in the 1920s, rifles rather than soccer balls were the weapons of choice.

   

The Socialist Party formed its Schutzbund militia under the leadership of Theo Korner, the mayor of Vienna and former chief of staff on the Isonzo Front. Korner, architect of the 1917 victory at Caporetto, did not think the future lay in armed conflict and urged his followers to see their militia as a force for self-defense only.

The Heimwehr, led by Prince Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, represented right-wing nationalist elements. As the Nazi Party rose in power and influence in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Heimwehr came to reflect the views of anti-Nazi conservatives and Starhemberg taunted Hitler, holding nationalist mass rallies in the Führer’s hometown of Braunau.

The Schutzbund rose against the government in February 1934, sending well-trained battalions into action in Vienna and other industrial cities. As Korner has predicted, the army deployed heavy weapons against them at places like the Anker Bread Factory, resulting in civilian casualties and crushing the movement. The Heimwehr also took the field to support the regulars, as they did in July when the Nazis murdered Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss and launched a coup attempt of their own.

Furious over the killing of Dollfuss — denied extreme unction as he lay dying — the Bundesheer hunted down the Brownshirts with a vengeance. The Nazi militia would not be a factor again in Austrian politics, as its leaders fled to Yugoslavia and made their way to Germany. When Austrian Nazis marched in 1938, they entered from Bavaria rather than mustering within Austrian territory.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold approves of this message.